K is for Adam Kahane And Otto Scharmer: Transformative Planning

This piece looks at how people combine the work of Adam Kahane and Otto Scharmer to bring about real change. Below are links to more about Adam’s work at Reos Partners and that of Otto and his colleagues.



 Adam Kahane and
Transformative Scenario Planning

The video above is from a talk he gave at the Royal Society of Arts. In it he introduces the concepts outlined in his book Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future.

This is an approach developed by Adam and his colleagues at Reos Partners. They aim to help teams of stakeholders to work together on their toughest problems

They provide a practical model that people can use to be proactive, shape the future and bring about transformative change. The approach has produced beneficial outcomes in many challenging situations across the globe.

Adam K

Adam has worked in more than fifty countries with executives, guerrillas, politicians, activities and many other kinds of stakeholders. The issues have included transitioning from Apartheid to democracy, moving from war to peace and bringing competing interests together to tackle climate change.

Here is the model that Reos Partners have created to bring about transformative change. This involves encouraging people to go through the following steps.

Step One: Convene A Team
From Across The Whole System

Getting the right people in the team is crucial. The make up of the team will, to a large extent, determine whether or not the project is successful.

Some people in the team will obviously not agree at the outset. That is why there is a problem. But there are several factors to bear in mind when choosing the people to make up the team.

They must have a willingness to solve the problem. They may have reached that point for a variety of reasons. They may feel, for example, that they have no other choice but to try to transform the situation.

They must represent each of the various stakeholders and represent a microcosm of the whole system. They must also have a strong stake in building a successful future system.

They must have a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives that will eventually enable them to influence the whole system.

Transformative Futures.002

Step Two: Observe What Is Happening

The facilitators invite people to observe what is actually happening. This part can be challenging.

Why? People often come with strongly held views. It can be they sometimes skip focusing on what is actually happening. They may instead voice their beliefs, interpretations and judgements about events.

People sometimes ‘see what they believe’ rather than ‘believe what they see’. They focus on information that supports their own belief systems.

Good facilitators create an environment in which people can get over any initial stubbornness and open their hearts and minds. This can lead to people moving onto exploring others approaches.

Here is an excellent summary of the facilitator’s role at this stage. It was written by Freija Van Duijne for the Futurist Blog.


The second step is to build up a shared understanding with this group. This process requires them to go beyond established views and see with fresh eyes.

According to Pierre Wack, co-founder of Shell scenarios, it is the “breathing in” phase of examining current reality. This produces the foundation of the “breathing out” phase of constructing and disseminating scenario stories.

The process of observation takes place in the physical and social setting. Careful attention of what is happening in this context is really important to create the right conditions.

The will of the scenario team is leading, and an imposed structure of the organizers should be avoided.

The phase of observing has a rhythm of diverging, coming up with ideas, emerging, talking things through and converging, drawing conclusions on what matters and how to go next.

It is important to keep your focus on what could happen and not on what you want to happen.

Once this has been established, the facilitators encourage people to focus on what is actually happening. Eventually this leads to the next stage.

Step Three: Construct Stories
About What Could Happen

The facilitators encourage people to construct scenarios about what they think could happen. Not what people predict will happen, should happen or believe will happen. As in most classic scenario planning, people are encouraged to explore the possible ways forward and the consequences.

Good facilitators again create an atmosphere in which people are encouraged to pause, ‘breathe’ and explore. It is vital that they formulate an overview of the options – together with potential consequences and uncertainties. Taking the time to reflect can lead to making breakthroughs and solidifying the potential stories.

Transformative Futures.003

Step Four: Discover What Can And Must Be Done

This is the time for shaping the future. Instead of simply adapting to circumstances, people can focus on how to transform the future. Alan describes this in the following way.

Next you take the transformative stance. You look at your scenarios as a set and ask:

Which futures are better for me and my organization or community or country?

So the fundamental transformative questions are:

What is my role in what is happening and could happen? What is my responsibility? What does the future need of me?

You are gradually discovering the intersection of the answers to the two fundamental and complementary questions that underlie all strategic thinking:

What is happening in the world that could have an impact on us? And what impact do we want to have on the world?

Out of all this, you draw conclusions about what you must do.

As in many types of conflict resolution, the rules are for people:

To build on what they have in common and the points they agree on.

To get some quick successes to build confidence.

To find, as far as possible, win-win solutions to their differences.

Alan explains, however, that things will not be all plain sailing. Some difficulties will remain. He adds:

Some of your conclusions and actions: will be congruent across your team, and you will want to work on these together; others will be congruent across your team, and you will want to work on them in alignment but separately; and others will differ across your team – perhaps even be in opposition – and on these you will part ways.


Step Five: Act To Transform the System

The next step is hard work. Some of the seeds that people plant will bear fruit and others won’t, but that is the nature of transformative work. Alan explains:

So this fifth step, even more than the previous ones, is emergent … The team needs to pay attention to where and how its work is taking root and to cultivate these new possibilities.

Transformative scenario planning often generates actions from concentric circles of change agents. These comprise the following.

The first circle is made up of the scenario team members themselves. They are the ones who can have the most impact by the behaviour they model and the actions they take.

The second circle is made up of the people with whom the scenario team members engage. These people are the most likely to be affected by the actions and can, in turn, model ways forward for other people.

The third circle are the wider groups. They can be reached by the scenario team members acting in strategic ways and by, for example, spreading of success stories through various media.

Success stories are crucial, because they help to shape people’s views about what is possible. They also help to bring about and reinforce the new reality.

Successful transformative work calls for the seeds propagating and spreading, says Adam. This is the classic ‘pollination’ method. But it is also important to maintain a sense of perspective. He says:

What I have learned … is that you must try to do this work as best you can, but that its failure or success – like most things about the future – cannot be controlled or predicted or even known.

Adam underlines the importance of taking time to pause or, as he puts it, to ‘suspend’ things when reaching an impasse. Taking time to reflect can enable people:

To take notice of their own thoughts.

To appreciate the thoughts and ideas of others.

To find creative breakthroughs.

Failing to pause can simply lead to people reiterating their entrenched positions. Paradoxically, taking time to pause can make things go quicker. He writes

Suspending is the doorway into the creative “U” process … Failing to suspend locks us into re-enacting old realities rather than enacting new ones.

This brings us to Otto Scharmer’s work and how this is sometimes incorporated into the process.

Otto S

Otto and his colleagues developed the Theory U approach for enabling people to develop. This involved people embarking on the following process. You can discover more about this approach by visiting Otto’s website and the link to the pdf.




Here are excerpts from a review of Adam’s book written by Martin Gilbraith. In it he describes how some aspects of the U process are incorporated into Transformative Scenario Planning. You can find the complete text via the following link.


Kahane tells the story of the Mont Fleur Scenario exercise, and how it helped a diverse group of South African leaders from across the many divisions of that society to talk through what was happening, what could happen and what needed to happen in their country – and then to act on what they had learned, so contributing to some peaceful forward progress in a situation that had seemed violently stuck. 

Drawing on another 20 years of subsequent practice with scenarios, Kahane goes on to outline his conclusions on when and how such planning works best – namely, in situations seen to be unacceptable or unsustainable, that cannot be transformed directly or by people working only with those close to them, and by means of a five stage process detailed in subsequent chapters.

The five stages are framed as a creative application of the U-process described by Peter Senge et al in Presence (2008) and Otto Scharmer in Theory U (2009).

This involves firstly convening a team from across the whole system (‘coinitiating’), observing what is happening and constructing stories about what could happen (‘cosensing’), discovering together what can and must be done (‘copresencing’), and finally acting to transform the system (‘cocreating’ and ‘coevolving’). 

Through this process actors gradually transform their understandings, relationships and intentions, and thereby their actions and their larger social system. 

This book … is richly illustrated with examples and stories, from exercises seeking to transform often profoundly conflicted societies including Zimbabwe, Guatemala, Quebec, Colombia and Sudan.

He relates a memorable story of a return visit to Colombia in 2012, 16 years after a scenario project began and some eight years after it had appeared to have failed, to hear the then President announce ‘that it had always been alive and was now the leitmotif of the policies of his new government’. 

He quotes the Bhagavad Gita, in a wry comment on the uncertainty of outcome inherent in any facilitative leadership:  “The work is yours, but not the fruits thereof”.

Adam and his colleagues at Reos sometimes combine the two approaches. (See below.) This provides a framework for enabling people to shape their futures. You can read more about the application of their work and their publications via the following link.


The U Curve

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2 comments to K is for Adam Kahane And Otto Scharmer: Transformative Planning

  • Bill Hoecker

    excellent information for all members of learning organizations

  • After the failed coalition talks two days ago in Germany, Adam’s talk (and his new book “Collaborating with the Enemy – How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust”) is most relevant.

    Enabling conversations and picture the future together across heterogeneous groups is key to “escape” the observed stuckness – whether it is in small community groups, institutions, companies or political groups.

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